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Co-Captain's Log, Vol. 2, Iss. 10: An Island (almost) to Oneself
June 21, 2023 | Anchorage Island, Suwarrow, Cook Islands | 13°14′59″ S 163°6′29” W | Wind: E 5 kts | Weather: 88° Sunny and sweltering
Co-Captain’s Log, Vol. 2, Iss. 10: An Island (almost) to Oneself
Anchorage Island, Suwarrow, Cook Islands
13°14′59″ S 163°6′29” W
The bizarre juxtaposition: I am listening to Art of Leadership podcast episodes where the host and guests discuss the criticality of planning:
“Every night I block my next day and schedule in my priorities according to my energy levels.”
“Oh, I would take that even one step further: I block my whole week out in advance, ensuring I write my book on Monday and Tuesday and have most of my meetings on Wednesdays.”
“Well 5 years ago I started blocking out my entire next year each November.”
And here I sit, in Ana María’s cockpit, sailing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, sailing west without even knowing our destination.
Will we be allowed to make landfall in the tiny atoll of Suwarrow in 36 hours? Will we detour to American Samoa so we can eat at Pizza Hut and hike in the national park? Or will we try to skirt the fine line between the weather front from the Southern Ocean and the dreadful South Pacific Convergence Zone to continue for 6 more days straight to Tonga?
The difference in mindset is striking. Many people back home are proactively planning their days, weeks, months, and even years while we are making and remaking plans every 6 hours when a new forecast becomes available.
What a different life we lead!
We are sailing in the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ), the area where the southeast trade winds battle for dominance over the fronts spinning towards the northeast from the Southern Ocean. It’s El Niño now (or very shortly will be) so the fronts are winning.
The squalls in the SPCZ are less isolated incidents and more like never ending conveyor belts of lightning and pelting rain. As we get whacked with squall after squall, into my mind floats the famous I Love Lucy scene where Lucy and Ethel try to work the assembly line and quickly get overwhelmed. I watch squall after squall develop right on top of us and I feel like them, except instead of eating sweets to keep up, I am gulping down rain water.
The winds here are fluky, not easily or reliably forecasted, hence our inability to set our sights on a specific destination.
In the end, we were allowed to land in Suwarrow and - thanks to daily snorkel adventures, lovely hikes, the delightful company, and a deep-seated sense of peace - it was a highlight of our cruising life!
Suwarrow is a tiny atoll in the northern Cook Islands, about 200 miles from the nearest inhabited island, with a population of…
Sooty Tern birds: Millions
Red-throated frigatebirds: Thousands
Sharks (black tip, gray, tiger, nurse): Hundreds
Coconut crabs: I’m too scared of ‘em to count ‘em
Humans: 0 permanent residents, 2 park rangers from June to November
Ana María was the 6th boat to call on Suwarrow this year, and we thoroughly enjoyed this new corner of paradise with sailboats #4 and #5.
“I chose to live in the Pacific islands because life there moves at the sort of pace which you feel God must have had in mind originally when He made the sun to keep us warm and provided the fruits of the earth for the taking…” - Tom Neale
If you’ve ever heard of Suwarrow, it’s likely thanks to Tom Neale who famously lived alone on the atoll for many years in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.
His memoir An Island to Oneself recounts his struggles to establish a life on the isolated atoll and the fulfillment he found in Suwarrow. All the cruisers devoured the book during our stay, amazed at how little has changed on the island since he lived here.
“This story is like Tom Sawyer for grownups!” remarked Andrés Jacobo. And it’s true! If you need a light adventure read this summer, we highly recommend this book. It’s begging to be read aloud. If you like to read aloud like we do, give your Netflix a vacation this week and find yourself transported to Suwarrow.
(You can find the free pdf of An Island to Oneself here: https://www.scribd.com/document/196166202/TOM-NEALE-an-Island-to-Oneself)
Many days I long for the predictability of life ashore, the luxury of looking forward to something because it’s likely to happen if you plan it right.
Many days I tire from decision fatigue. We plan and make decisions and replan and overturn our decisions and get new information and scrap the plan altogether for a new route. Over and over and over we do this.
Today I listen to experts talk about the critical skill and discipline of proactive planning. At the same time I try to get excited for, yet not attached to, any of our 3 current possible destinations.
“When we will be able to return to the best practices and luxuries of planning and following through with a plan?” I wonder.
But then I think of this new skill we have, this new strength we can exercise as a team:
We have become incredibly nimble.
On land, we would be going crazy if at some point in the next 2 to 10 days we could be in one of 3 very different countries. (!!!!!)
But we’re out here and we’re calmly handling the unknowns and accompanying anxieties.
Does it sometimes feel futile to make plans you are completely confident will change completely? Absolutely.
Does it feel totally unproductive to fill out a 15-page “Advanced Notification Arrival”form for a country you only have a 33% chance of actually visiting? Absolutely.
Can we survive out here in the South Pacific without making plans of some kind? Absolutely not.
We were just finishing a great snorkel with s/v Afrikii and s/v Sea Rose at the South Reef in the Suwarrow pass. Visibility was great and the reef was bustling with activity. We were climbing into the dinghies when Sue from s/v Sea Rose shouted “Manta!”
Our exhaustion was immediately replaced with adrenaline as we ducked back under the water and swam as fast as we could towards Sue. Sure enough! Right next to her was a 12-ft-wide manta! In fact a rare manta, with jet black velvety skin on both the back and the stomach.
She swam gracefully, barely flicking her wings yet gliding like Aladdin’s magic carpet through the water. She was gracious, allowing us to swim within feet of her for several minutes as she swam towards the pass.
Despite the fact it’s winter here in the Southern Hemisphere, we are close to the equator so it’s unbearably hot during the day. No way we’re turning on the oven to cook! Instead we’ve increased our grilling. Besides feasting on grilled tuna and barracuda freshly caught and generously shared by s/v Afrikii and s/v Sea Rose, we tried our hand at baking on the grill: oatmeal cookies for a finger food potluck and homemade hamburger buns for black bean burgers.
Every boat cruising for any length of time has a “Signature Story.” So as we sat on the beach as a small intimate group under the vast starry sky, I asked our new friends on s/v Afrikii and s/v Sea Rose and the park rangers, Harry and Taina, to share theirs.
S/v Afrikii told of transferring diesel and medical supplies to a de-masted boat in the middle of the Pacific. (You can watch the exciting video here.)
S/v Sea Rose shared about losing their last sailboat in a tsunami in Malaysia.
We recounted the knock-down and leg break at Mendocino. (Click here to read our story.)
Taina surprised us with, “I am 58 years old and I told my kids I wanted an adventure! So I signed up to come to Suwarrow. But there was a mix-up in my transportation. I couldn’t get on the same cargo ship as Harry. Instead, I traveled the 550 miles from Rarotonga on a Marumaru Atua, a traditional canoe. It was only 24 feet long and there were 18 of us aboard. No privacy at all! They told me it would take 2 days so I didn’t think it would be that bad. Wrong! It took more than 5 days and they wouldn’t even let me smoke!”
We all listened with rapt attention as Harry finished off the evening with his story of spending 3 days at sea in a life raft after the ship taking him, 20 fellow passengers, and a deck full of butane and gasoline to the Manihiki atoll caught fire then EXPLODED! They were eventually rescued - all unscathed - by a cargo ship.
What riveting campfire stories!
Maybe on land, when I spent all that time planning, I was doing it for a false sense of control. You don’t have to be an adult very long before you realize our grip on control can disintegrate faster than we can imagine.
Cruising on a tiny sailboat simply magnifies the truth that, while we have agency in our lives, we don’t always … or ever? …. have control. Something can always change. Something unexpected can always catch us off guard. Something can always derail our best laid plans.
And cruising on a tiny sailboat has taught us: that’s okay.
Even if we gain something from all our planning, we also lose something.
Being nimble has brought some unexpected delights to our life:
It’s brought us contentment. It was tough to miss out on most of the Tuamotus due to storms and health issues, but we learned to be thankful for the time we were given in Makemo.
It’s birthed in us optimism. We’ve learned, even if our plan doesn’t work out, something else will.
It’s allowed us to take advantage of unexpected opportunities to enjoy that which we didn’t even know was possible: opportunities like eating the Marquesan feast at Rose’s, pass snorkeling in Makemo, and bow-and-stern anchoring in the crystal clear water of Ua Pou.
So am I gonna throw out my calendar when we step back onto land?
But I hope Andrés Jacobo and I continue to find ways to build, exercise, and flex our nimble muscles in whatever life we have.
After a delightful week in Suwarrow, we are inching our way toward American Samoa, the promised land for American cruisers in the South Pacific, a land flowing with Budweiser and Heinz Ketchup.
We’ll be on the move again quickly so you can track us and read the Captain’s passage logs at https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/AnaMaria/
Fair winds and following seas,
Visit www.CoCaptainsLog.com to read our previous logs from Bora Bora, the Tuamotus and the Marquesas and check out @CoCaptainsLog on Instagram to see a video of the manta and our photos from Suwarrow.
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